A Tale of Two Cheasties

Ironically, I first heard about this strange tale on a bike blog post, from one of dozens of blogs I follow via rss. And I am a bike rider, well, a street bike rider. The Parks and Recreation Department was allowing a mountain bike trail in Cheasty Greenspace, a natural area of Seattle Parks. I did a little digging and became very upset that this was actually happening, and that I had only just found out about it. How could this be?

Cheasty Greenspace or Cheasty Mountain Bike Park, that’s the question.

I thought back to the summer of 2012 when the Parks Department tried to put a commercial zipline in Lincoln Park. That one was stopped by a huge community backlash. But this mountain bike trail… it seemed that the only people aware of it were those in the biking community, and they were very excited. The similarities between the zipline fiasco and the mountain biking proposal seemed eerily striking: Parks had worked for quite a while quietly with the backers of both proposals, before the public became aware of what was happening – and the public was not in favor of either – and the Parks Department wanted both. Hmmm.

Right now the general public is just starting to find out about the mountain biking proposal. A few people talked about it quietly, did research, got a tip, and pretty soon an ad was run in the Seattle Times, in opposition to the mountain bike proposal: 

Amazingly, the people right around Cheasty Greenspace were some of the last to find out. Thanks to the ad, the community is alive and fighting back, organizing, planning, researching – to preserve their urban forest sanctuary:

14%Turning a natural area into a mountain bike park in the middle of Seattle is unforgivable. Once that forest is torn up, it will take generations for it to return to a natural state. There are precious few undeveloped areas in Seattle Parks – actually, only 14% of its park space is undeveloped. It is so incredibly important to maintain the little natural space we have, and we must do whatever we can to keep it for the enjoyment of ALL the citizens of Seattle, not just the special interest groups that serve a fraction of the population – in the case of the sport of mountain biking, we are usually talking about affluent, white males. There are exceptions of course, but the fact remains that the vast majority of the population will not be able to use this space as a place to get away from it all, and experience a native wild habitat. It will be gone.

The people behind the mountain bike park have been quietly working on it for three years. They have worked carefully, and they have cultivated a good relationship with some of the staff of the Seattle Parks Department. In fact, the Parks Department itself was the one pushing this through the approval process before the Seattle Parks Board. One of the most startling aspects of the proposal is that the Parks Department has a policy of no bikes in its parks (with a few small exceptions). The Parks Board twice turned down this Mountain Bike Park proposal based on that policy. Two months later, the Parks Department came again to the Parks Board, and asked for the Bike Park to be approved as a pilot – meaning it would be exempt from city policy. Incredibly, the Parks Board approved it.

One has to wonder why we have rules and policies at all, if they can be overridden at any time by a pilot from a special interest group. What would stop the development of something like a pilot “Family Fun Old Growth Zipline in Schmitz Park”, for instance?

Here’s a link to what the Parks Department has to say about the project. Please note the March 25th meeting. It is the FIRST public meeting on the Mountain Bike Park. Trail construction is scheduled to start within a week of the meeting. If you care, be there.

Take a look at this wild picture below. Some would call this an overgrown waste of space, filled with invasive species. Others would look more closely and see native ferns, mahonia, salal, and a host of critters underneath it all, living their lives in an undisturbed peace, in the middle of a big city. 

We need to preserve this space for all those living things, so that generations of people can visit, enjoy, and be refreshed by being in their midst.

To learn more about the efforts to stop the Mountain Bike Park proposal, read what others have said, written, and cited, below:

To stay in touch with the latest, and to add your thoughts and ideas, stop by the Seattle Nature Alliance on Facebook or follow along on Twitter. Or leave a comment here…

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About Mark Ahlness

I am a retired teacher, with dreams of still making a difference.
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23 Responses to A Tale of Two Cheasties

  1. Denise says:

    Well said, Mark. I was also very surprised to learn about this bike park being built into a greenspace. The first thing that struck me was the trail design. To cram so much intense use into such a small space completely ignores what recreation planners call the “carrying capacity” of the land. There should be no more than one trail….a footpath open to ALL people, not just those who can afford mountain bikes. Since we have already devoted 86% of park land to active recreation or landscaped design, the remaining bit of natural area should stay reserved for wildllife and the general population, not given over to specialized user-groups.

  2. Dan Moore says:

    I live near this property and have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree that we need to preserve green-space in the city. However, I don’t see why having a recreation trail (or trails) cannot work in conjunction with preservation. There is a big difference between sports field recreation, and nature-based recreation (which mountain biking and hiking is). The impact on the land from a soccer field versus building a trail in the woods is quite different. People able to recreate in nature, while still in the city, makes a city more livable. I guarantee that people’s outdoor cats are killing more Wilson’s Warblers in Cheasty than this mountain bike trail ever will.

    Looking at the proposed map, it does appear that the proposal is overdeveloped though, and should be scaled back – which we can still promote. And I think it is possible by building a partnership with mountain biking groups that we could promote conservation even better in our neighborhood. This has been the case for rock climbing with the Access Fund. When I go by Cheasty, which I do often when I go running, I often see non-native plants and dumped waste. So having a win-win partnership could be a good thing for the property – if done properly. I found the point about who mountain bikes to be interesting: “in the case of the sport of mountain biking, we are usually talking about affluent, white, pre-adolescent, males.” Is it possible the reason for this is partially because all the places to go mountain biking are out in the suburbs and the national forest? Maybe non-white, non-mountain bikers would more likely mountain bike if they had access to property to do so close to where they live? I think the demographics at Jefferson Golf Course, versus courses out in the suburbs proves that point. I think the author is quite wrong about the age group, that mountain bikes however. And regardless, what is wrong with having a healthy activity in our neighborhood for boys?

    I think the biggest issue here is how the Parks Department fails time and again to truly engage with the community. This is evident in this issue right now because the community was blind-sighted, learning about this proposal later in the process, and now will come against the project with full opposition – with little tolerance for compromise. Parks really needs to learn from the Department of Neighborhoods how to create grassroots, community supported projects. Look at the Beacon Food Forest. That project was funded by the Department of Neighborhoods, P-Patch program, yet the organizers and community have had the majority of involvement on the project, and it is widely popular in the neighborhood. In fact we all take pride in it because we know so many of our neighbors have been involved from the beginning. That is a deliberate methodology that Neighborhoods uses, and Parks needs to learn from. Problem is, Neighborhoods has been trying to teach them for years, and Parks doesn’t seem to want to listen.

    Is the idea to provide more nature-based recreation in the city limits the main problem here? Or is it how the Parks department bungled a controversial project?

  3. Mark Ahlness says:

    Dan, thanks for leaving your thoughts. You suggest a mountain bike trail can somehow coexist with a natural area. Not possible, by definition, sorry. It is not a win-win, but a win-lose proposition. If Cheasty becomes a mountain bike park, it will cease to be a natural area. And the loss comes from the alarmingly small and rapidly dwindling 14% of Seattle Parks that remain natural areas.

    Yes, I agree with you that the Parks Department needs to do a much better job of listening. They will soon have egg on their faces again, I’m afraid. Many Cheasty neighbors are outraged at the proposal.

    As to why certain groups are or are not mountain bikers… I would suggest you look at economics. It is an activity for the well to do. As for the age groups who enjoy it, I should have included older white males as well, I will grant you that. Show me a reputable, non-biased study about mountain biking and socioeconomic status that makes your point, and I’ll listen. Otherwise, I stand by every word I said.

    You ask at the end if it’s about providing “more nature-based recreation” – absolutely not. It is about PRESERVING the pitifully small natural areas still left in Seattle for everyone to enjoy. To give ANY part of Cheasty over to a special interest group serving a tiny fraction of the city’s population is ethically and morally indefensible.

    I’ll end by saying that my post only begins to scratch the surface of what is wrong with and about the mountain bike park proposal. There are major, major problems with it – from both the process and natural area perspectives. I suggest reading up on all of the links at the end of the post, which detail many of the issues. It will give you a better sense of why all the outrage. Best – Mark

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  5. Jay says:

    Mark,

    I did not start out as a fan of this project. I am still lukewarm on the bike trails aspect, but I do not see an alternative tool to help Cheasty recover within the timeline proposed by the Vegetation Management Plan. I could have saved myself time and merely expressed negativity about the project with brief bursts of energy as it progressed, but instead I reached out to the group and worked to become informed. That process has resulted in my spending more time giving input to direct this project in a positive way, rather than condemning the forest to destruction through neglect.

    The group heading this project – Friends of Cheasty Mt. View – have spent a substantial amount of time reaching out to neighbors since 2007. They carried out numerous meetings when rehabilitating Cheasty Mt. View, which today is one of Seattle’s best examples of a recovering forest. In contrast, the remainder of Cheasty receives quarterly and semi-annual bursts of energy that are making little headway on the more pervasive issues in the space. You yourself saw the invasive issues when you took your photographs on February 15:

    “More young and mature maples in decline, thanks ivy” http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahlness/12552509675/in/photostream/

    “Piles of ivy – volunteers had been here, some time ago” http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahlness/12552999124/in/photostream/

    “View from east side” – Note the solid cover of Himalayan Blackberries present in that view
    View from east side

    Friends of Cheasty Mt. View even reached out last year, multiple times, to speak with Friends of Cheasty Boulevard – a long standing, but unfortunately small, group that has put substantial amounts of their time into restoring and preserving the green space. Furthermore, the Friends of Cheasty Mt. View reached out for support, opposition, and public input through flyers, web based information, and numerous public meetings in 2013 when it was applying for the Levy Opportunity Fund grant.

    I encourage you, and anyone else who opposes this project, to take the time to meet with your and Cheasty’s neighbors that are working on the bike pilot. Based on my experience with them, I know that they would be open to having a conversation with you, answering your questions, hearing your input, and even walking through Cheasty to show you their fears for the future of Cheasty if something is not done to reverse its course immediately. Alternatively, if you have a better idea that will resort in the restoration of this space in a timely manner, please share it – because I would love to see more options on the table.

    Yours,

    Jay

  6. Susan says:

    Mark, thank for this very well written and interesting piece. I appreciate your take on the issue and like hearing the different ideas and interpretations. I also live near this project and, not being a mountain biker, have had mixed feelings on the mountain biking part. But my main concern, and one that seems to be getting missed here, is that this space is not “natural” now. It is not a native forest. It’s looks great from the road, where quarterly work parties have succeeded in making some small headway over several years, but the interior of this space is ivy, blackberry, rats, decades worth of garbage, and dangerous illicit activity.

    Within a decade, however, a healthy native forest is going to be growing on this hillside, largely because of the energy of those rich white mountain biking boys. I am not going to start mountain biking, but you better believe my family is going to be hiking there. Which means, we’re less likely to burn the gasoline to drive out to Cougar or Tiger Mountain on the weekend and we’re more likely to buy lunch on Beacon Hill instead of Issaquah, thereby supporting our local economy. We’re going to get a little more nature in our urban lives, and so will all the other working class families in my neighborhood, many of whom don’t have the option to drive out the ‘burbs when they want nature. Accessibility to nature is a real class issue that this project is going to address.

    I’m not sure how to interpret the concern that all this has been happening in secret. I’m known about this project for over year, perhaps because I’m pretty well connected with my local community. I regularly volunteer at our local school, Seward Park and Hitt’s Hill Park, as well as the Cheasty and Beacon Food Forest work parties. I attend the local farmers’ market (where this project has provided information for the last two years), am a regular at local businesses, and am just generally involved with the community around this actual space. I’ve had tons of conversations about this project with people in the local community, almost all of which have been overwhelmingly positive. Working families are excited about reclaiming these woods for the neighborhood.

    We choose to live in a city and accept the fact that urban living, and all the benefits that go along with it, mean we don’t all get exactly what we want. I’d love a quiet, meditative, 40 acre forest in my backyard that nobody came into but me. Being neither rich, nor willing to move to Idaho, however, I’m pretty happy to settle for a forest I can enter safely, even if I do have to share it with a few white boys on mountain bikes.

  7. Mark Ahlness says:

    Jay, thanks for the conversation. I find it surprising, despite all the supposed reaching out you mention, that it has taken this long for the story to reach the general public. The organizers held their cards very close until recently. The advice offered by the bike park leadership to someone wanting to do something similar, was to look for a “good location with limited potential for opposition”.

    I am upset that there are those out there right now, looking to cherry pick natural areas (which belong to ALL of us) from neighborhoods with “limited potential for opposition”, for the specialized interests of a small fraction of the population.

    But I am mostly saddened by the loss of Cheasty Greenspace. It has been renamed by the bike folks, and it will never again be a natural area or a greenspace, for anyone. – Mark

  8. Mark Ahlness says:

    Hi Susan, thanks for your feedback. I’d say we have significant differences of opinion on just exactly what is a natural space, what will happen to the space with a conversion to a mountain bike park, and the reaction of people in the community to the proposal.

    Being neither a biologist nor a botanist, and rather than go back and forth on our disagreements, I’d encourage you to read through the draft position statement by the Urban Forestry Commission on the mountain bike trail proposal that I cited at the end of my post. These people know what they are talking about.

    Best – Mark

  9. Susan says:

    Hi Mark, Thanks for your reply. I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to get back online and see it until now. It’s true I’m not a biologist or a botanist. I am, however, an educated, interested, rational, and caring person, and you sound like you are too. From reading your post, I am pretty sure we have a lot in common. I am also a neighbor with a responsibility to look to the long term health of this land. The biologists agree that we have to restore this land, and the current rate of restoration is simply not sufficient to do it.

    So we’re doing it.

    The bike trails are one way in which we’re going to get this project done. They are not the raison d’etre of this project, but in my conversations with the organizers and other people in the community, I have come to embrace the social and economic benefits these trails are likely to bring to our neighborhood, in addition to the environmental component. I had to take off my own environmentalist tunnel-vision glasses to really see the big picture, but it’s there.

    It’s not a secret cabal running the project. You, too, can be involved. The project is moving forward and the big decisions are made, but there are a thousand and one little decisions to be made during the development phase that you can influence. We work every first Saturday on the South Side of Cheasty, and will be working every third Saturday on the North side. There should be a schedule of work parties coming up at http://www.beaconbikepark.com/ Come join us and contribute the to the conversation. Your passion and experience can help direct this project that is going to finally restore this incredible forest.

  10. Mark Ahlness says:

    Susan, putting a mountain bike trail in Cheasty Greenspace will not “restore” it. I ask you to take one more step back to look at the bigger picture – the loss of one more natural area in our city. If a mountain bike trail goes in there, it is gone.

    Proponents of the bike park are doing a great job painting this as a done deal. I suggest it is far from that.

  11. maztec says:

    Mark: I see the question here as being what will be the net gain or loss at the end of the day. As I understand the Park Board’s decision, restoration activities must occur throughout the park, not just on the proposed trail sites, as part of trail development. If we step back and objectively look at the overall condition of the park as it is now and then visualize the space fully restored, but with trails in it, in 15 years what is the resulting change in the space? It seems that a dichotomy is being painted at this time: on one side a graveyard of mud, dead plants and animals, broken bicycles, criminals, screaming upper-class intoxicated white teenagers, and waste – and on the other a utopian green space with meandering trails and the occasional tick tick tick of a bicycle ridden by a young African refugee swiftly passing through on a bike path only visible if you are upon it. Obviously neither end of that spectrum is going to be the reality. But where in the middle is the reality going to fall?

    Bike trail proponents are not saying that bicycle paths will have no impact on the space. What they are saying is that the trails will bring out the volunteers needed to restore the space at large – remove the homeless camps, remove the ivy and other invasives, and then maintain the space for years to come. They envision that the green space will see a net gain in habitat and overall green space quality.

    Bike trail opponents are saying that bicycle paths will add an open cut to an already wounded space. They envision that the bike trail proponents will not carry out the much needed restoration efforts and that they will simply add to the existing damage.

    The bike trail proponents have been working on restoring Cheasty Mt. View for years now. Invasive species have been reduced, a massive replanting effort is ongoing, and transient encampments have disappeared.

    Some of the bike trail opponents have been working on restoring Cheasty along Cheasty Boulevard for decades. They have successfully appealed to the city to increase the size of the space, which is fragmented across major roadways including Cheasty boulevard. They have not been able to rally a large enough, continuous group of people to work on restoration — instead it comes in fits and starts. While some groups have made a sustained effort, it has only managed to preserve and restore small portions of the space – most notably the southwest end that has a large, open, somewhat level grass area. Some restoration has occurred along Cheasty Boulevard and a cyclone fence has been installed, but people continue to dump trash over the fence and into the space. Sadly and frustratingly they have not been able to rally enough support for the space to guarantee substantial progress in its restoration before the heart of it withers and dies – as it is already doing.

    Parks lacks the resources to restore the space without substantial outside assistance as well. Parks is overwhelmed with land in Seattle that is in the same condition as Cheasty.

    The Parks Board has already approved this as a pilot project. If opponents truly want to change that direction, then it is upon them to present alternatives by becoming organized, raising the hundreds of thousands of hours of pledged volunteer time to restore the space, raising the millions of dollars required for steep slope restoration (or create an endowment for the restoration of the space), and pitching that idea to Parks as a serious possibility and not merely something that will wither up and blow away as soon as the bike pilot proposal is destroyed.

    Cheasty has spent decades dying under a culture of no. Now it has the possibility of restoration, but at the cost of trails. Will the restoration efforts in the space create a net positive gain in the park, even at the cost of putting in trails, I believe the answer is yes based on the research and passion of the bike trail proponents.

  12. Mark Ahlness says:

    Dear maztec…

    The decision on what to do with a Seattle Parks Natural Area is not dependent on a contest, to see which group has the best plan. Nor is it made based on the reputation or good name of a group with a plan.

    Working hard to prove you will do a good job does not give anyone the right to determine how land owned by the city should be used. Saying that another group has done less than you does not give you that right, either.

    There are rules, regulations, policies, processes, and plans.

    Once again, I encourage followers here to read the citations I left at the end of my post (way up there) by those who wrote the rules, monitor the processes, know the regulations, and understand how our Natural Areas are to be used.

  13. Mark Ahlness says:

    Dear readers,
    Comments are now moderated. – Mark

  14. Mira Latoszek says:

    What strikes me after looking at the map above is that it is a plan to layer fragmentation on already existing fragmentation. The value and potential of the Cheasty forest is in the contiguous nature of the forest. The bike park plan as shown in the map breaks that up. The restoration efforts by the bike park volunteers seem to be well intended. However, breaking up the forested area with paths and jumps will reduce the quality of the habitat for wildlife and create additional edges within the forest itself. Non-native and invasive plant species progress from disturbed edges into the interior because the environment at the edges is different. As stated in the Vegetation Management Plan: “As forest fragmentation increased due to spreading urban development in the area, the extent of forest edges increased. All forest edges differ in typical ways from the forest interior: there is increased potential for wind-throw, more open tree canopy, decreased shading, decreased moisture in soil and micro-climate, and encroachment by non-native plants.”

    A healthy forest requires large undisturbed interior habitats, so that the plants and wildlife that do well in that environment have enough space. The Cheasty forest is in a degraded state because there are too many edges that have already been introduced. With the bike plan, even if parts of the forest are restored to some degree, there will always be a constant need to fight back the affects of continual incursion of invasive species. If the forest is restored with the interior preserved the effects of restoration can be lasting and self sustaining.

    I can support bike and walking trails along the perimeter where the damage is already done. I agree with the recommendations of the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission that the interior should be fenced and should not have and trails built into it. There could even be viewing platforms built so that people can look into the interior without compromising it. There is a bird sanctuary along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago that has been restored in this way: a restored forest interior that is fenced in with paths and platforms around the perimeter. It has become an internationally recognized birding area.

    There are a lot of other places in the city to site jumps and competitive obstacle course facilities in areas that are compromised beyond restoration. There’s a potential site on the west side of Jefferson Park. The dirt road that goes through that area (16th Ave) is going to be converted into a bike green way. Wouldn’t it make better sense to site the bike park next to the green way so that people can ride to it?

  15. Mark Ahlness says:

    Mira,
    Thanks for your input, and I appreciate your mentioning the Vegetation Management Plan as well as the Urban Forestry Commission recommendations. I get the idea of a protected interior space – but have you actually visited the area? It is really too small to include all those trails, fenced off from the interior – and still maintain a habitat where a self sustaining population of plants and animals could survive. It is just too narrow. I understand the idea, but I’m afraid it’s lip service to accommodate everyone, satisfying nobody. (I also believe this is a minority opinion of the Urban Forestry Commission, and may not appear in their final position statement).

    But your mention of Jefferson Park is very interesting! For those unfamiliar with the area, it is west of Cheasty, before you get to Beacon Ave. I drive by there often, and have been amazed by the really nice recent development, as a recreation area. It looks like a great spot for a bike park – right ON the green way that the rest of the Seattle bike community is so excited about! Why not? http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2014/03/07/city-releases-2014-bike-map-plans-major-remake-in-2015/

  16. Mark Ahlness says:

    Dear readers,
    I just made the first edit of this piece since I wrote it on March 14. I removed “pre-adolescent” when describing the typical small fraction of the population who are mountain bikers. I should have realized that this would offend the grown up men who are mountain bikers, so I apologize. – Mark

  17. Max says:

    This all sounds to me like the same old argument that somehow people riding bikes on trails in the same or proximal area that people walk on will somehow destroy green space. Keep in mind that a trail is exactly that, a trail, not a large swath of land. I also see a lot of good will and intention from the cyclists that I know personally to make this area a nice place to go ride. I think that it is also important to recognize our city’s parks as places for everybody to enjoy being outside. I dont see how putting a trail, primarily around the outside of the area defined, will disturb all of the habitat that you are talking about. BTW what sort of habitat is there in these woods that will be so threatened? If anything, getting people into the woods usually increases their fondness for them. Some people like to ride while others like to walk.I happen to think that there is a shared interest here that both types are not so far apart that we can all share the same area.

  18. Mark Ahlness says:

    Max, thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts. You mention trails quite a bit. It’s worth noting that there are no constructed trails in the interior of Cheasty Greenspace. That is by design, to enable plants and animals within that space to thrive, undisturbed. You asked about habitat. I really suggest reading through the Cheasty Greenspace Vegetation Management Plan that I linked to at the end of my post. There’s a lot going on in there. I agree with you that everybody should have access to nature. But this proposed mountain bike plan includes nearly 5 miles of biking (mostly, and more have been added/suggested recently) and walking trails in a very small space, which can clearly not sustain that amount of heavy usage by people. It would certainly no longer remain a natural area. But I do suggest you read through that Vegetation Management Plan, to get a better idea of what the experts say about the place. Best – Mark

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  20. Siobhan says:

    Why not put the mountain bike trail in the area between Pac Med and I-5…the area that’s currently the somewhat less sketchy part of the Jungle? Would further improvements that were begun there a couple of years ago instead of letting it return to it’s former state.

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